Women at a funeral? Ask the rabbi

June 15, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Is it true that women should not go to a funeral?   Why not ask the rabbi?

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.


Q. Is it true that women should not go to a funeral?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. This is a widespread view but it is more an emotional than halachic issue. Some people have the feeling that women are too emotional to face the harsh reality of a cemetery, but this applies to anyone, male or female. Being shaken by attending a funeral can make men terribly distressed, not just women.

One of the few halachic aspects of the problem relates to a pregnant woman being at the cemetery. The question is whether the pregnant wife of a kohen may go to the cemetery: if her baby is a boy, does this mean that a male kohen has wrongfully been near a grave?


Q. Why does the Hebrew alphabet have final forms for some letters but not for others?

A. The five letters with final forms which come at the end of a word are kaf, mem, nun, peh and tzadde. A rabbinic source makes them into a mnemonic word, “min hatzofim”, literally “from the watchmen” (Tosafot, Shab. 104a).

In the Jerusalem Talmud there is a suggestion that these five letters were specially chosen to have final forms because each stands for an important word. Kaf is “hand”, since the Torah was given by the hand of God. Mem is “ma’amar”, “utterance”, symbolic for the Divine word. Nun is “ne’eman”, “faithful”, since Moses is called “faithful in all My house” (Num. 12:7). Peh means “mouth”, since the Torah was spoken by the mouth of God. Tzadde is “tzaddik”, “righteous”, since God is called “righteous in all His ways” (Psalm 145:17).

A simpler explanation, given by the Vilna Gaon, draws our attention to the fact that ancient writings did not always show where one word ended and the next began. It was therefore useful to have an elongated form for the last letter of a word. This was relatively simple by extending the bottom bar of kaf, nun, peh and tzadde, and by turning the four sides of the mem into a square. This could not be done easily with the other letters and they therefore lacked a final form.


Q. I knew someone born in Av (otherwise called Menachem Av) whose Hebrew name was Menachem Nachum. Why the double name, since both names mean much the same?

A. A number of Hebrew names are like that, though often the second name is the Yiddish equivalent of the first name. Examples are Simchah Zelig, Baruch Bendit (i.e. Benedict), Uri Feivel (from Phoebus, the god of light), Dov Ber and Ze’ev Wolf. In some cases the first name is Aramaic and the second Yiddish, e.g. Shraga Feivel. Menachem Mendel is a more difficult combination, as Mendel is not a translation of Menachem. However, it probably means “little man” and if so derives from the first syllable of Menachem.


5 Responses to “Women at a funeral? Ask the rabbi”
  1. Eleonora Mostert says:

    Wow! And God is watching. Who’s word are you all following…. that of God or of man?
    Guess what God is still watching.

  2. Liat Nagar says:

    Speaking of Jewish funerals, I read a disturbing report appearing in ‘The Times of Israel’ on 16/06/2015, written by Tamar Pileggi. The Jerusalem burial society refused to bury a deceased infant and returned his body to the family in a cardboard box. The baby boy, born to the Bornstein family, died at four days old in Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem. Usually hospitals coordinate the burial of infants with cemeteries in accordance with halacha; in this case the the Bornsteins wanted to take care of the arrangements themselves.

    Bornstein said that after the hospital gave him the body of his son he went to the burial society at Jerusalem’s Sanhedria cemetery, where he was refused permission to bury him. The chevra kadisha insisted that it was following Jewish law, which stipulates that a baby who dies in the first month of his life is treated as stillborn, and the parents are typically not allowed to participate in the burial or even be told the grave’s location. After some negotiating he and a burial society representative reached an agreement that the parents would be told the location of the grave, but not attend the funeral.

    The next day,however, Bornstein said the organisation reneged on the agreement and he was told to pick up his son’s body from the office at the cemetery. “He was in a cardboard box just sitting on a bench in the office – I couldn’t believe it,” Bornstein said. “So I took it to the car and turned on my air conditioning to try and keep the body cold while we figured out what to do.”

    Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, chairman of Zaka, Israel’s voluntary emergency response and rescue service, intervened on the parents’ behalf and arranged for the infant to be buried Tuesday at the Mount of Olives cemetery. Later, Bornstein said it was completely shocking to him that burial is monopolised by the burial society and that they treated the body of his son as if it were a dead cat.

    Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Moshe Amar, urged the Religious Affairs Ministry and the burial society not to ignore the anguish that the ‘completely unnecessary’ incident caused the Bronsteins. He called on the burial society and the government ministry to meet and discuss how to prevent similar mistakes from happening again. Jerusalem’s burial society responded to reports of the incident saying that its workers were bound by the regulations of the Religious Affairs Ministry and were unable to bury the Bornstein’s infant as the family wished.

    Last August, following ongoing pressure by parents and NGOs, the Health and Justice ministries established a joint committee with representatives of the Religious Affairs Ministry to establish new funeral and burial procedures for infants. The committee determined that the parents of infants who died in their first 30 days would be allowed to decide the funeral and burial procedures. It further ruled that the burial societies must allow the parents to be present at the funeral and mark the burial plot if they wished. The committee added that families requesting a civil burial ceremony would be permitted to hold one. The new regulations were sent to all burial societies in the country, except for a few that were granted an exemption after ultra-Orthodox groups said the new procedures were in contravention of Jewish law. The Sanhedria burial society was included in those granted an exemption.

    What an appalling affair that any ultra-Orthodox human being would be so concerned for the niceties of halacha that parents suffering the death of their baby would be expected to completely negate the child’s prior existence and forego a loving and respectful burial, as well as not even know where he/she might be finally buried. What sort of blinkered, rigid, thoughtless mentality must afflict such devoutly religious people – the very light of life and humanity is swept aside due to man-made rules that are manifestly cruel, and unnecessary. If anybody wishes to argue on behalf of those observing halacha in this situation, let them for one moment imaginatively walk in the shoes of the Bornstein parents and their poor, dead baby.

    We should not be meekly asking Rabbis what the rule is for women attending funerals, et al, with a view to blindly accepting the ruling. We should be asking with intent to examine that rule with a view as to its appropriateness in the 21st century and its real effect on men and women. We should ask the question, is this particular rule (which, after all, is man-made through interpretation in the name of Judaism) destructive, cruel and completely unnecessary. We should not just follow it because it’s there. We should not behave like robotic clones in response to complex human situations. We’ve been given the capacity for far more than that.

    Nobody reading my comments will guess for one moment that I love Judaism and respect much in relation to it. But I do.

  3. Liat Nagar says:

    Who are these people who feel, or think, that women are too emotional to go to a funeral, or that a cemetery might be too much for them to bear?!! What a ridiculous and highly inappropriate suggestion. It seems to me merely an excuse for yet again attempting to preclude women from taking full part in religious proceedings. Psychologically and emotionally it is damaging to not allow women to fully participate in what is an important part of grieving for the dead.

    I suggest, from studies I’ve read, that women in fact are stronger emotionally than men. And I think that some men might be afraid of the fact that women ‘express’ their emotions, something men often find more than difficult to do. They confuse this with being ‘weak’ emotionally. To express an emotion does not equate with being unable to withstand it or bear it. Some of the harsh realities women have to bear in all sorts of situations, with no escape or avoidance possible, beggar belief, and yet we see this sort of ‘widespread belief’ bandied around. And that’s mainly because of the agenda behind it. When will the extremely religious stop using excuses to make women second-class citizens and deem them lesser? Men and women are different beings, but should be equal partners in all that life offers or afflicts them with. Let us stop this business of relegating the female of the species to roles chosen for them by men. It’s unfair, destructive, and patriarchal to an extreme.

    There has been increasing incidents in Israel of Rabbis refusing to let women participate at the cemetery at funerals, even the wife or mother of a deceased man, relegating them to the outskirts. This is a terrible thing, and the Israeli government/s have instructed that by law Rabbis cannot insist on this, and that women may participate in funerals just as men do. So women must assert themselves here.

    As for the possibility of a male Kohen in the womb when there is a funeral to attend, I shall not allow myself to comment on that, except to say where do our priorities lay, and isn’t it time some halachic interpretations are dragged kicking into the 21st century for commonsense and humane evaluation?

  4. ben gershon says:

    Response to “Women at a funeral? Ask the rabbi”

    have who you want a funeral that needs to be there .one dose not need a rabbi. anybody that can do the service is good


  5. Erica Edelman says:


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